Using Technology to Farm in Climate Climate-Challenged Areas

SThe desert is home to the ky Kurtz farms. The co-founder and CEO of Pure Harvest Smart Farms—located outside Abu Dhabi, where temperatures regularly top 113°F—and his team use the challenging environs to trial new crops and technologies that have the potential to change farming in climate-challenged areas. Pure Harvest supplies produce to Dubai’s supermarkets and restaurants using less water. It is an important service in one the most desert regions on the planet.

In 2017, Kurtz and his co-founders Mahmoud Azi and Robert Kupstas founded Pure Harvest Smart Farms. Passionate about food insecurity, they spent the first year studying high-tech food–production systems around the world, as well as searching for the optimal site for their first farm.

Sky Kurtz from Pure Harvest Smart Farms

Natalie Naccache for TIME

Kurtz’s farms in the UAE started out with “nothing but a PowerPoint, a pile of dirt, and the promise of what we would do,” says Kurtz. Pure Harvest proved that it wasn’t just a promise. The founders’ research and technological innovation led to the development of a proprietary Controlled–Environment Agriculture (CEA) system—a combination of high-tech greenhouses and vertical farms that provides a stable year-round climate. The company’s first tomatoes crop was harvested in October 2018 after it had been planted. The company’s original farm is now its R&D facility, and Pure Harvest has expanded its facilities in the UAE to 16 hectares of growing area. Pure Harvest also owns a Saudi Arabian farm of 6 hectares and is working on a Kuwaiti farm of 6-hectares.

There are 14 kinds of greens, and two varieties for strawberries. Seven more varieties are being created. And almost thirty varieties of tomatoes. This is the same product that began it all. The UAE is limited in local seasonal produce so it has had to import much of its food. It often does this by air freighting, which can be costly both financially and environmentally. While they can be more expensive than local seasonal produce but are usually up to 60% cheaper that imported fruit and vegetables of the same quality, Kurtz claims. “I think we’ve fundamentally changed a belief system that said local is worse,” says Kurtz.

Their vision fits in with a wider goal for Dubai to become more self-sufficient, and they have a desire to use their R&D to help tackle the impacts climate change is already having on the food industry in the Gulf region and farther afield. They are not only focused on developing premium markets, but they also seek affordable ways to make fresh food more accessible to all.

Kurtz hopes the company’s data-driven technology can become a model for other regions that are experiencing climate stress. “We believe that we can develop a local-for-local solution where it’s needed most, and we’ve battle-tested that capability in one of the harshest environments in the world,” he says.

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